A Presence wherever folk music is played on the fiddle

Leading tributes to traditional music legend Sean Maguire, who has died aged 77, Donegal fiddler Martin McGinley recalls the man known as 'The Maestro'

By Martin McGinley, 'The Irish News'

Sean Maguire was always there, and now he’s gone. The word genius may be over-used these days, but there’s no other way of describing the phenomenon of Sean Maguire in the world of traditional music.

The Belfast man rewrote the book on fiddle playing after bursting onto the scene in the 40s with a combination of dazzling virtuosity, high creativity and passion for performance. It was a style which pushed the boundaries, nettled the fundamentalists and which he himself called ‘progressive traditional’.

His performance in winning the Oireachtas in 1949 was the stuff of legend, the story being that he got 100 per cent from each of the four judges.

He set out on his life’s journey as a professional musician and became known wherever folk music is played on a fiddle.

Because my mother Kathleen is also a fiddler, it seems that the music of Sean Maguire was always known in our house, and he certainly was a living presence in the traditional music environment I grew up in.

One of the men who usually attended the weekly sessions in the Central Hotel in Raphoe was Barney McGinley, an occasional fiddle player who described himself as Sean Maguire’s greatest fan. Maguire was always talked about.

‘The Mason’s Apron’ was regarded as the showpiece of showpieces, while playing the High Level hornpipe - even with Maguire’s byzantine variations - showed that you were a serious player.

A fiddler from along the border, Michael Collins, showed up in the sessions occasionally and it was agreed that as far as Maguire imitators were concerned, he was right up there.

But at the end of the day - which is sadly where we find ourselves - there was only one Maguire.

It was perhaps inevitable, in that Raphoe hotbed of Maguire-dom that finally the man himself arrived with Josephine Keegan to play a concert in the upstairs lounge where the sessions took place.

Sean, who was making a living at his art, knew what it was like to play in London pubs where he struggled to make himself heard over the sounds of emigrant labourers getting in the Sunday morning pints.

But he also knew the other atmospheres - rooms filled with Maguire fans (they were definitely a distinct breed) where his every word and every note was dropped into a pool of reverential silence.

The Central Hotel in Raphoe was such a place on the two or three occasions he played there.

Tickets had been printed and sold out. Everyone was in their place before Sean and Josie arrived in like royalty, Sean nodding the head briskly from side to side as he moved through the seats, bristling - as I look back on the scene - with barely contained energy.

Sean would lift the fiddle and hit a characteristic double stop, and suddenly the world would be transformed.

In those days, the mid-70s, maybe he was in the best form of his life. His music was mature, but all that technique, attack and imagination was still bursting out of him. And in the piano playing of Josephine Keegan, herself a very fine fiddle-player, he had the perfect foil.

His tour de force was supposedly ‘The Mason’s’ (the abbreviation was a sign of insider knowledge), which he gave the full Maguire treatment, but every tune was special.

Those who knew a bit more about music suggested he shouldn’t try pieces like the Czardas, which exposed him to comparison with outstanding classical players, but to me that was like comparing James Galway to Matt Molloy, or the poetry of James Simmons and Seamus Heaney - beside the point.

Looking back, I don’t think I will ever again have the musical experience of those Maguire nights in the Central - closing my eyes and hearing Sean Maguire produce a miracle of fiddle playing, only, when I’d let my breath out, to have to endure something equally unworldly in the next breath.

It must have been like the experience of seeing Paganini - he just pushed the boundaries so far beyone expectations, a Bob Beamon long jump. There was a struggle for explanation, for description.

One of the Quiggs, three brothers we knew from Tyrone, maintained that the bow never touched the strings.

Danny O’Donnell, the great Dungloe fiddle player, was a true student of the art throughout a long life. He recalled going to see this much talked about young fiddler player called Maguire in the States in the 50s. Could he be the next Coleman?

After hearing him, Danny thought not; he was as far above Coleman as Coleman was above the ordinary fiddler.

I got to know Sean a little when I lived in Belfast in the late eighties and early nineties. He’d arrive in Madden’s Bar, still full of enthusiasm, trying to generate interest in the latest great tune he’d come across, such as the one his playing partner Patsy McCabe suggested would be the next Mason’s Apron.

Losing his voice box through cancer seemed no impediment to Sean, although at times you felt it was a mercy that some people remained unaware of his fortright opinions.

For all his ebullience, though - and that story of driving the motorbike through the middle of a session in Belfast comes to mind - he seemed to have a soft centre.

A picture I’ll always have of him is from a long chat we had on a trip to Shetland, when I saw the other side of the man. Of course, this is immediately counter-balanced by the vignette from the airport at Glasgow on the way back, when he organised an impromptu session with Maurice Bradley on Sean’s pipes, myself on his fiddle, and Sean himself on assorted cutlery.

A man in the airport uniform came over, and I was sure we were in bother.

Instead, he offered us our choice of drinks from the bar and thanked us.

‘That’s because they’ve heard of Maguire’, said Sean beaming.